As a fledgling architect just a couple of years out of school, Irwin Stein was looking to build his practice in 1958. The then-28-year-old went on to build some 80 commissions, including garden apartments, industrial buildings, offices, automobile agencies and a dozen contemporary houses, primarily in the Philadelphia suburbs. But first he turned to those close at hand. “Most young architects start out working for friends,” he says today at age 82. “The Wachses were personal friends, and Mort was starting his dental practice and found the site. He wanted to build an office with an apartment above it—he felt that was all they could afford. I screamed and hollered that it was a nice site and they should be building at least the beginnings of a house.” Perhaps even a custom home.
Stein prevailed, and a two-bedroom, split-level home with an attached dental office was built for Morton Wachs and his wife, Elsa, on a wooded lot in Wallingford, Penn. The living area was on the same level as the office, while the bedrooms were up a level and the kitchen and dining room down a few steps.
Swimming Against the Tide
Stein’s modern aesthetic elicited some raised eyebrows, the Wachses remember. During construction, bystanders were fearful a gas station was being built, and a structural engineer neighbor warned the couple that the roof would blow off in the first windstorm or collapse when it next snowed. But the eye-catching roof of the custom home was just a manifestation of form follows function for the architect. “I had never seen anything like it before,” Stein says about his folded-plate roof design. “It was simply an enlargement of the idea of the usual cross-bridging that you see in a floor for stiffening; the roofing and ceiling just followed that [design]. I used it on three houses ultimately.
“[Modern architecture] was a mixed bag: The people who liked it really loved it; others just dismissed it. I once designed a house using three geodesic domes in the ’70s. After the clients died, one of the neighbors bought it and tore it down. There are some people who feel very violently about it.
“And it was not easy to get construction financing for any kind of unconventional design. We built a scale model for [one of my] houses, got them to put it in the savings and loan window, and proceeded to bombard them with calls and letters about how nice it was,” Stein chuckles. “The client was able to get his mortgage that way.”
In 1965, when the dental practice was prospering and the Wachses had children, two additional bedrooms, another two baths and a playroom were added. The house had been sited on the lot with expansion in mind, and by the time the family numbered five, the extra space was welcome. “When we designed this house with Irwin, we had no children,” explains Elsa Wachs. “It seemed so lovely to always be able to eat in the dining room. But after our first child arrived, the wish for a mudroom and an eat-in kitchen was strong and only became stronger with succeeding kids. The forethought that Irwin put into materials and design helped to make it an easy house to care for.”
New Owners of a Custom Home
Find out about how this home has advanced into the 21st century in Part 2!